American exceptionalism built wall with the world

By | January 23, 2022

Decades of Americans telling anyone who’ll listen how they are the best, biggest, brightest, fastest, friendliest, funniest folk who ever trod the earth have delivered two results: most Americans believe the rest of the world are second rate and the rest of the world thinks Americans are deluded.

Patriotism wasn’t invented by Americans – though they have turned it into a deeply disturbing fetish – and one has only to look at lists of national days in other countries to realise that EVERY country thinks it’s the best. Yes, maybe some of them have needed extra effort to convince themselves, because the alternative – that things are not so great where they live – would be too much to bear. And others living under oppressive regimes are classic sufferers of Stockholm Syndrome, growing to love their tormentors. And let’s not forget that countries are the product of the people who live there, who are the products of the country, who are … you get the idea.

But big or small, rich or poor, ancient or modern, most people in most countries believe theirs is the best in the world. Exceptionalism is not exceptional, and Americans have only turned theirs into a more all-embracing cult based on some quite wonderful achievements over 400 years and shielded by a widespread ignorance of how the rest of the world’s 7.8 billion inhabitants live.[1]

For every 24 people in the world, 23 are NOT American

That ignorance is partly the result a natural human instinct to focus on the near and now rather than the far and then, finessed by education choices, family history and community pressures. In the 19th Century in particular it sprang partly from the pressing necessities of developing its own 10-million square kilometres of land hitherto mostly untouched by agriculture and industry – the drive of “manifest destiny” – when foreign countries were either irrelevant or the birthplace of their fellow US citizens.

In more recent times, since the development of electronic communications, there has been an increasingly powerful extra impetus to the exceptionalising process – the “envisioning” of American greatness quite separate from the actuality. And this aspect has mainly been driven by the mass media.

Much to be proud of

The United States has long been one of the most literate and media-heavy societies on earth. While amalgamations, take-overs and competition from electronic media have led to a decline in newspapers, 100 years ago when the population of the US was around 100-million, there were more than 20,000 newspapers across the nation. Any town of any size had at least one paper and the major cities had several. By 1919, it’s been estimated that 15-billion copies were being printed nationwide each year – a staggering 140 copies for every man, woman and child!

The spread of radio was even faster. Wireless technology was popularised first in the United States and grew so quickly that by 1940 – when the clouds of television began to loom over the airways – there were 765 radio stations across the nation. Again, the majority were local, covering local issues, playing American music and broadcasting American drama. Some stations were part of wider networks, but these were nothing like the national public services in other countries such as the BBC or Radio France, both of which also had overseas arms connecting them to the world and supported by large networks of foreign correspondents.

The story of television in the United States was similar, though perhaps its greatest influence on American exceptionalism was not in news and information but in popular culture. (American television journalists have – with some exceptions – been as conscientious and honest as any in the free world.)

In the America of popular culture, Hollywood had already become a byword for the movie industry and TV just magnified its influence, bringing American exceptionalism into every home. Americans no longer needed to go to a movie theatre to see their idealised selves reflected back off the silver screen, they could stay at home, indulge and avoid the rest of the world altogether.

Even today, a common complaint of overseas visitors to the United States is they see little-to-nothing about other countries in the American media, a complaint not so easily sustainable by Americans using foreign media, which almost always has something about the US.

Whereas many small, outward looking societies such as Australia consume disproportionately large amounts of news and entertainment about other countries[2], this is rare in the United States beyond quality media in the major cosmopolitan centres. This comes partly from most Americans having so much available to watch from their own society but also from a lack of interest in unintelligible and inferior “foreign” societies.

As an aside, while this is very pronounced in the US, it too is not unique. Almost all media feed localism when they report international events and the French have even taken to inventing words to avoid using American English, such as “courriel” for “email”.

The ability of average Americans to engage with the rest of the world had become so bad that in 1987, conservative American philosopher Allan Bloom distilled the problem in one, admittedly over-wrought and overweight (and therefore largely unread) tome “The closing of the American mind”. Though Bloom’s focus was on how higher education in general – and its failure to teach a cannon of excellence in particular – had failed generations of American students, his arguments more importantly highlighted the sheer general ignorance of ordinary Americans. Memorably he observed not only that most Americans could not place the world’s great capitals on a globe but that they could not even correctly pinpoint their own major cities on a map of the USA. The observation came as no surprise to foreigners who could probably have made more accurate stabs at locating US cities than Americans themselves.

In a 2002 National Geographic–Roper 2002 Global Geographic Literacy Survey of more than 3,000 18- to 24-year-olds from nine nations, young Americans came second last – ahead of only Mexico.

Astonishingly, given the 9/11 atrocities the previous year and the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan, only 17 percent of young adults in the United States could actually find Afghanistan on a map.

Almost two decades later – and proving the 2002 survey wasn’t a fluke – the Council on Foreign Relations and the National Geographic Society commissioned Gallup to ask 2,000 Americans of all ages questions about the United States’ role in the world, geography, foreign policy and demographics.

Despite everything that had happened thus far in the 21st Century, on average respondents answered only half the questions correctly – a result not much better than playing pin the tail on the donkey. Only six percent got 80 percent or more correct.

Confusingly, seven out of 10 believed overseas events would affect their own lives to some extent, meaning they knew they should know more, if only for self-protection.

The survey was also seen to support the contention that American exceptionalism is not mainly practised by the better-educated who can find Kabul on a globe but choose not to go there. Rather, it is principally the domain of the under-educated for whom ignorance of the rest of the world is both proof that their pride is well-founded and confirmation that the unaffordability of overseas travel is no great burden.

Donald Trump’s snappy slogan “Make America Great Again” is very cleverly both an exhortation to vote for a leader who will achieve that national greatness and a reminder that America always was, always would be ‘great’, and is only held back by lesser leaders than himself. It is nostalgia weaponised.

Other countries suffer from exceptionalism too

Just to put all this in context, the virus of exceptionalism is present in most nations, sometimes best encapsulated in its motto or brand.

While some countries have it in their actual title – the most obvious being Great Britain – more commonly the boast is part of its motto, sometimes in Latin but more usually in the national language. These can be worthy (the European Union’s “United in diversity”), aspirational (France’s “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”), outright boastful (North Korea’s “Powerful and Prosperous”) or pure jingoism (“Long Live Belarus!”).

Few, though, compare to South Korea’s excruciatingly modest Hongik Ingan, which roughly translates as “To broadly Benefit Humanity [and] Devotion to Human Welfare”.

The point is that – South Korea aside – almost all countries think they are exceptional, righteous and largely chosen by God.

What makes the United States exceptionalism different from most is (a) it really is a wonderful modern, democratic and generally welcoming nation and (b) almost without exception it acknowledges no faults. It is perfect, like the fabled Camelot in the Lerner and Loewe musical – “In short, there’s simply not/ a more congenial spot/ for happily-ever-aftering than here/ in Camelot”.

For that is its greatest weakness – the inability to accept its faults. The pressure on Americans (and their allies) to conform to the perfectionist vision and not rock the boat – while nowhere near as suffocating as, say North Korea or the People’s Republic of China – means it devalues its own achievements. Donald Trump ceaseless boasting about himself simple emphasises his faults. By simple logic, we know no-one can be that perfect so everything he says is reduced to an absurdity only his most ardent followers fail to acknowledge. Ironically for a nation whose motto is “In God We Trust”, fundamentalist American Christians – who actually have in Christ a model to compare Trump against – seem blinded to their president’s shortcomings. Which is sad, because there is more love and compassion in most Americans than there is in their president.

Americans individually are mostly well-liked and admired

I am aware throughout this article of the dangers of generalising from the actions of some or the biases of common stereotypes when it comes to the United States, a culturally and socio-economically diverse nation of some 330-million people. Indeed, among English-speaking nations, Americans individually are generally well-liked and admired, especially by people who know them as relatives, friends or acquaintances. Outside the Anglosphere, that is not quite so common, perhaps reinforced by the seeming unwillingness of Americans to learn any language other than their own. Their habit of raising their voice and speaking more slowly in English is really not the best way to make friend with people whose ancestors may have been speaking the languages of cultures that were sophisticated thousands of years before the Pilgrim Fathers landed in The New World.

Americans simply cannot understand why they are not loved and respected by the rest of us. After all, no other nation in the last 70 years has distributed more cash to good causes around the world – much of it untied. None has been a more ardent supporter of democracy and the right of each individual to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. No nation has ever been so long at the cutting edge of scientific and technical development and shared it more generously (commercial considerations aside). In America the arts are valued, popular culture flourishes and individual initiative is generally rewarded – with the right upbringing and opportunities.

So why, given all this and the general friendliness towards Americans in person-to-person interactions, is America the beautiful so disliked as a nation?

It’s not just that, as generous as the United States has been, its governments and many citizens cannot seem to stop themselves reminding anyone who cares to listen of their generosity. After all, the Chinese have become the Great Benefactors and they not only desire uncritical admiration but fealty too in return for their more modest international assistance, especially through their self-interested Belt and Road Initiatives. And most western donor nations – such as Britain and Australia – increasingly tie aid to projects that enhance their status more than they help the recipients on the ground.

America, by comparison, has been quite open-handed in its overseas assistance, until quite recently. Now, of course, its withdrawal into Make America Great Again self-centred protectionism is actually having the effect of making America small again, a decline that is appalling its allies and heartening its enemies.

And America’s friends really do want the old America back again. We want it to turn away from its self-absorbed narcissism and become self-critical, bigger-hearted and more mature.

Not everything that’s wrong with the United States is the fault of Donald Trump – though he has magnified the faults. Indeed, Trump could be seen more as a symptom of the current malaise than the originator. Whether or not he won the popular vote in 2016, almost 63-million Americans fell for his promise to Make America Great Again. They were carried away by that great plague of American exceptionalism that first sprouted with the Founding Fathers, that took root as white people swept Westward across the continent, that flourished during two world wars while all the other great powers beat each other into poverty and which blossomed in the last half-century of rising living standards and self-congratulation.

Some critics see the Reagan presidency as the beginning of the end of hope for a better America because, despite his achievements in effectively ending the Cold War, Reagan the actor sold the American people the grand vision of who they were rather than the not-inconsiderable truth of their worth and worthiness. The younger Bush continued that tradition, albeit to a better-informed audience, then Trump brought it to its logical zenith. It no longer matters to 63-million American voters whether or not the United States is a great country; it matters only that they be reassured that it is.

It hasn’t mattered to them that the arch-spruiker of American exceptionalism would turn out inevitably to be an appalling president. They only desire a great salesman.

One final word on the role of the media in feeding the monster of American exceptionalism in general and Trump’s inflation of it in particular.

Whether or not US journalists believe in American exceptionalism or not, they should surely believe in the morality of their role more.

The news media’s traditional role of telling the emperor he has no clothes is nothing to do with nudity but everything to do with honesty. The take-away from the fairy tale has always been that people are better off exposing and accepting the ruler’s faults than continuing to live a lie.

There has always been a role for media to reflect the best in a society as well as the worse, but when this triumphalism bleeds over into the editorial pages or the news bulletins, it become destructive. Media that spruik exceptionalism are continuing the lie. It’s not a victimless crime.


[1] Another way of looking at the numbers is: For every 24 people in the world, 23 are NOT American.

[2] Australian taxpayers actually fund a whole separate national TV and radio network (SBS) focusing on multiculturalism and the outside world.

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